We need solutions not just problems

7th November 2003 at 00:00
If we ask pupils to find alternative strategies for solving world environmental and economic crises, it does actually empower them, argues David Hicks

We didn't need the shock of New York's Twin Towers being hit by terrorists trained in the isolated mountains of Afghanistan to realise that this is a truly interconnected world. Open a bag of supermarket shopping in the classroom and ask pupils to find out where each product comes from, who produced them and what conditions they work in. Or get them to look at the high street traffic and consider the relationship between human activity and newspaper images of submerged villages in Sussex and Mozambique. Then the impact our choices have on millions of people in distant cultures becomes starkly apparent.

The truth is that today we cannot make full sense of our daily lives unless we consider the international context. Issues such as genetically-modified crops, global warming, globalisation, third world debt and sustainable development are global in scope but also have an impact on our local communities. A major task of education must therefore be to help pupils develop a global perspective. This has already been recognised by the Department for Education and Skills in Developing a Global Dimension in the School Curriculum and in Wales by Accac, the Qualifications Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales in Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship.

A global dimension refers to the curriculum as a whole and the ethos of a school; it consists of all those subject elements and cross-curricular concerns that focus on global interdependence. In this country, teaching about different cultural and political perspectives on global matters dates back to the 1920s : progressive teachers were concerned about the need for greater "world-mindedness" in education.

Internationally, educators use the term "global education" to cover four main themes: inequality-equality; injustice-justice; conflict-peace; environmental damage-diversity. As well as looking at specific problems, such as the impact of GM production on biodiversity, the causes of African peasant farmers' poverty, or the misconceptions behind racism, pupils need to explore positive solutions. To study only the problems would leave them feeling powerless; active involvement in the solutions can make them feel empowered.

Interest in global education is rising. The Department for International Development in London is funding work in schools through regional consortia of interested parties. Vital work is going on in teacher training at, among others, the universities of Bangor, Glasgow, Exeter, West of England, and Gloucestershire. Undergraduates reading education at Bath Spa University College can choose from a variety of international and global modules, eg, citizenship, environment, futures, the Pacific rim, and radical education.

And the Global Teacher Project, based at Leeds Metropolitan University, works nationally with both universities and schools to promote a global dimension in the curriculum. Oxfam has also been influential in promoting global citizenship nationally.

But as well as looking outwards towards the wider world, education should be looking forwards. Pupils in school now will become the consumers, voters, decision-makers and visionaries of the 21st century. Yet exploration of the future is largely missing from the curriculum. While people most readily think about their own personal future, our turbulent world requires that we also consider social, environmental, and global futures. It is vital therefore that pupils - and teachers - are encouraged to think more critically and creatively about the world ahead of us and thus develop a "futures perspective".

What might this involve? Students at my own university can take a module entitled "Education for the Future" in which they explore: why localglobal change today requires the development of foresight; popular images of the future in Western society; the international field of futures studies; feminist and non-western views of the future; the need for more sustainable futures; children's hopes and fears for the future; work at primary and secondary levels; envisioning preferable futures. Simple exercises in the classroom can include asking pupils to draw a timeline showing their community in the world and consider both probable and preferable futures over the next 20 years. Or they can draw up different scenarios for the future to illustrate more sustainable ways of living, for instance by looking at the need both to cut energy use and switch renewable forms.

The World Futures Studies Federation is one valuable source of information for teachers and academics on futures perspectives. Australians are pioneering work in a variety of schools under key themes in Tasmania's "Essential Learnings" document: ethical action, the nature of interdependence, personal and world futures. Such a curriculum policy recognises that a global and futures dimension are inextricably intertwined and essential to any view of effective education.

David Hicks is professor in the school of education at Bath Spa University College and author of Citizenship for the Future: A Practical Classroom Guide (WWF-UK) and Lessons for the Future: The Missing Dimension in Education (RoutledgeFalmer)

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